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Inside the Jerry-rigged machine

Producer & his team make it hum in both film, TV

The wrong guy five years ago said he was “king of the world.”

That title belongs to Jerry Bruckheimer, whose three films in 2003 have generated U.S. box office of $461 million — equal to the combined domestic output of MGM and DreamWorks for the same period.

This season, his TV unit will have six series in primetime, including the worldwide hit “CSI” and the second season of the rapidly rising “Without a Trace” on CBS, and “Skin,” debuting on Fox.

Bruckheimer, whose personal film-TV income for the 12-month period ending in June was $35 million, according to Forbes, should easily earn two to three times that amount in 2003. He already owns substantial parts of the town of Bloomfield, Ky.; at this rate, he may soon buy the entire Bluegrass state.

The exec’s success this year has generated ample publicity. But nobody has looked under the hood of his streamlined production machine to see how it works.

What makes Jerry run?

On a recent Friday afternoon, the Bruckheimer factory was humming. A small army of aides circulated through the producer’s sleek black headquarters, a converted pharmaceutical warehouse on a nondescript Santa Monica cul-de-sac.

But the factory foreman was nowhere in sight.

Bruckheimer, as usual, was on the move. He was in County Wicklow, Ireland, on the set of his next tentpole for the Walt Disney Co., a rambunctious rendition of the King Arthur legend. In the following week, he returned to Santa Monica, then traveled to Tokyo, New York and Philadelphia.

Next stops are the Toronto and San Sebastian film fests, which are screening his film “Veronica Guerin”; then it’s on to various European cities for the “Bad Boys II” junket.

The schedule is modest in comparison with the 12-month stretch in 2000, when Bruckheimer had five films in production — including “Pearl Harbor,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Bad Company” — with the producer traveling in a loop from Hawaii to Morocco to Czechoslovakia.

Bruckheimer says he maintains his dizzying schedule by relying heavily on Mike Stenson and Chad Oman, who run his film operations, and Jonathan Littman, who oversees TV.

Oman, 38, who joined the company in spring 1995, was a producer and founding employee of indie film company the Motion Picture Corp. of America, where he worked on such pics as “Dumb and Dumber”; Stenson, 43, is a former Disney film exec who joined the company in 1998 after toiling from the studio side on pics including “Armageddon” and “The Rock.”

Together, Oman and Stenson produce some of the company’s pics and exec produce others, and head a staff of roughly 25, including lower-level execs and support staff. They also oversee 35-40 projects in active development at any time, readying three for production each year.

Bruckheimer is involved at critical moments in each project. He makes key decisions on writers and casting. He devotes particular attention to post-production and marketing — unsurprising for a producer who had an early career in advertising.

“At the ideas stage of a project,” Oman says, “if Jerry feels it is commercial, if it’s something he wants to go and see and he can sell it, we know we’re on the right track.”

Bruckheimer is a notorious workaholic. The adage among interns at Jerry Bruckheimer Films is that the best way to get the boss’s attention is to go into work on a Saturday. The complex of offices includes a cappuccino bar, a pool table and a fountain, with a canal built into the floor. Employees have been known to stumble into it, which could be the producer’s way of keeping workers always on the alert.

Bruckheimer’s zeal and productivity, and the assembly-line-like efficiency of his company, has invited comparisons to classic Hollywood producers like David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn.

It’s an apt analogy: Selznick used 15 screenwriters on “Gone With the Wind”; Bruckheimer’s films have been known to employ multiple writers, each polishing a different facet of the script. There were five credited screenwriters on “Armageddon”; four more did not get credit.

“There aren’t that many writers who can do it all,” Bruckheimer says. “The ones who can are not often available.”

Thalberg invented the sneak preview; Bruckheimer swears by test screenings. “Every opportunity to go see the movie with an audience, he goes and sits in the back,” says “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski.

Goldwyn was known for his discoveries of stars; Bruckheimer loves to break new talent, and he was a key in the early careers of Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Michael Bay and Ben Affleck.

In conversation, Bruckheimer is quick to reference “The Genius of the System,” Thomas Satz’s book about the collaborative, mid-century studio system and its bombastic showmen.

But Bruckheimer, who has a degree in psychology, has a style that’s the opposite of bombast. His demeanor is somber and spare. He is a staunch Republican, but doesn’t talk about it. Dressed in a black suit in the silent, black-and-chrome confines of his cavernous corner office, he speaks in abrupt, clipped sentences, and rarely cracks a smile. One friend says he cannot remember a laugh.

During his partnership with the extroverted and even outrageous Don Simpson, Bruckheimer was renowned at Paramount for sitting through entire meetings without saying a word.

Simpson would carry the meeting. At the end of a pitch to studio brass, Simpson would finally say, “Jerry here will bring in this production on the money. He is a great physical production man.”

No one can recall Bruckheimer ever protesting that he also was interested in script and performance. He accepted his role stoically and performed it.

His reputation as the silent, non-creative partner has vanished since Simpson’s death in January 1996 of a drug overdose. Bruckheimer is not always confrontational, and he may be sparing in his opinions. But as his collaborators and colleagues tell it, he’s not hard to read.

“He drops in his two cents, and he does it in a way that it echoes around in your head for the next two days,” Verbinski says.

“He’s pretty blunt,” Stenson says. “The company is like a family, and when you’re at the family dinner table, the food gets thrown around.”

Says Oman: “Jerry can look at a movie and take no notes and make dozens of specific suggestions afterwards about how to change things. He loves the process. He loves watching dailies and fixing things. He believes it’s never too late to change something if it doesn’t work.”

Post-production on a number of his pics is done in a bank of edit suites in his Santa Monica compound. He can spend hours upon hours with the director, reordering scenes and dialogue, and overseeing the music.

Currently Bruckheimer, who’ll be 58 in September, is in the midst of negotiating a new five-year deal at Disney.

Though his producing fee varies from pic to pic, his minimum guarantee is estimated at around $13 million, with his first-dollar gross participation in the range of 5-10%.

At the studio, his movies are overseen by Nina Jacobson, president of the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, and exec veep of production Jason Reed. But Bruckheimer is considered a partner in the marketing process, and works closely with Disney marketing chief Oren Aviv to create trailers and TV spots for his releases.

His perfectionist streak has involved enormous changes at the last minute.

“Pirates” was re-scored three weeks prior to release. “Kangaroo Jack” and “Dangerous Minds” were in post-production for a year, in which the films underwent major overhauls. Andy Garcia’s character was excised from “Dangerous Minds”; the marsupial in “Kangaroo Jack” became a more prominent part of the plot, and the rating shifted from PG-13 to PG.

“Once in a while, you test a movie, and you realize that the movie the audience wants is somewhat different from the movie you thought you were making,” Stenson says. “The toughest thing is to put in another year’s work, rather than letting it die in a week or two.”

Next up for Bruckheimer are Jon Turteltaub
‘s “National Treasure,” which stars Nicolas Cage as an archaeologist searching for a treasure map the founding fathers allegedly drew on the back of the Declaration of Independence, and “Glory Road,” about the 1966 Texas Western college basketball team that beat Kentucky to become the first squad to win the national championship with five African-American players.

With its mega-success in both film and TV, the company has become an international brand. This has advantages; however, some at the company are troubled the Bruckheimer name is still used to invoke any kind of mindless, testosterone-infused action film.

Bruckheimer has long sought to put this stigma to rest. Since the Simpson days, he’s been working hard to increase and diversify his output.

In so doing, Bruckheimer may find himself in a Catch-22: His formula for success relies heavily on market-testing his films with mainstream audiences. But a reliance on market research can result in predictability and blandness.

The responsibility for expanding the breadth of the company’s films falls heavily on Stenson and Oman, the latter of whom brought “Guerin” into the company when he came onboard.

Bruckheimer compares the Joel Schumacher-helmed biodrama, which cost just shy of $17 million, with his $25 million football drama, “Remember the Titans.” Both are message movies about controversial events, made on relatively modest budgets.

Still, the Cate Blanchett-starring “Guerin” is shot through with Bruckheimer touches, from its unambiguous anti-drug rhetoric to the final funeral procession, with its pageant of gleaming limousines and swelling orchestral score.

Bruckheimer’s global peregrinations notwithstanding, he still spends his Friday and Saturday nights sitting in movie theaters, seeing all the new releases. “He would rather watch a movie with a real audience on a Friday night than see it at an industry screening or premiere,” Oman says.

Bruckheimer has produced more than 40 films, but he doesn’t like watching them again. “I see all the mistakes I made, and I get nuts,” he says. “I like to keep moving.”

And, like a shark or a Lear Jet, Bruckheimer doesn’t ever move in reverse.